Anna Brooks, Postmedia
, Last Updated: 5:58 PM ET
CALGARY — Meeting 62-year-old Dr. William Hanlon at his clinic in Cochrane, Alta., you wouldn’t guess the local family doctor recently conquered a 720-kilometre walk across a frozen lake in Siberia.
But Dr. Hanlon is no stranger to the extremes of nature. He completed the seven summits (including Mount Everest) in 2007, and just last year spent 70 days walking through Afghanistan with only a translator and a few horses.
Dr. Hanlon left Cochrane in February, embarking on a three-week long solo expedition traversing Lake Baikal in Russia to increase awareness around the lack of healthcare in remote areas of the world.
“It’s difficult to get a crowd out to a talk about treating tuberculosis in Tibet. If I do something adventure-wise, it tends to attract a lot more attention,” Dr. Hanlon said.
While he classifies the experience as an adventure, few would entertain the idea of lugging a 75 kg sled across almost 650 km of ice in temperatures plummeting to almost -30C.
“I’ve done some extreme stuff before, but this was my first solo expedition,” he said. “It was very remote, and the rapidly changing environment required constant attention. Nature like this can be very unforgiving if you’re inattentive.”
Dr. Hanlon recalled only having one major scare when he realized his only safety net — a satellite phone — wouldn’t work unless it was registered (Russia is the only place in the world where you have to register satellite phones).
It was a particularly blustery day, and Dr. Hanlon had to scramble into a dripping rock cave and try and read the 16-digit number on the back of the phone’s tiny SIM card while steadying himself against buffets of blowing snow.
“That was probably the most stressful part of the whole expedition,” he said with a laugh. “But I went there with the expectation there would be no backup — obviously we take those risks when we do these expeditions.”
Every evening, Dr. Hanlon had to hammer in ice screws to secure his tent — he couldn’t risk having his small shelter ripped away by the forceful gusts that tore across the lake through the nights.
Dr. Hanlon left Cochrane in February, embarking on a three-week long solo expedition traversing Lake Baikal in Russia
Days were long and arduous: three hours in the morning taking down the tent, layering up and prepping for the day, 10 to 12 hours navigating broken ice and pressure cracks in the lake, and three more hours setting the tent back up and readying for night.
And with Dr. Hanlon on 30-day Russian visa (he finished the trek in just under 23 days, but also had to factor in his 36-hour train ride to a small city where he would fly back to Moscow from) he couldn’t even afford one day of rest.
“Six hours a day was spent purely setting up your house and getting the basics of life like food and water going,” Dr. Hanlon said. “And it’s ironic because on this huge lake containing 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, I could die from dehydration if the stove broke down.”
A massive gash in the land stretching up from the Mongolian border, Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, home to almost a quarter of the world’s fresh water. More than 1,000 plant and 2,500 animal species occupy this seemingly inhospitable mass, and Dr. Hanlon said even under the ice, life pulsating through the lake.
“It was amazing, it was almost like mini earthquakes were going on under the ice,” he said. “It’s very dynamic geothermally. You get shooting cracks in the ice, and hear all these cracking and booming sounds.”
Despite the long stretch of time alone in the Siberian wild, Dr. Hanlon said he found friendship in inanimate objects that kept him alive, and even blogged about his conversations with characters he developed including Scellig the sled, Tommy the tent and Hobnails (his feet and spiked boots).
“I had a lot of time to think and play around mentally and creatively,” he said. “This place is so special — it’s a very high energy place in the sense of the spiritual world. Truly there was never a moment I felt lonely.”
You can follow Dr. Hanlon’s trip on the Basic Health International Foundation blog here: basichealthinternational.org.